The Heartbreak of HDD

Some simple steps to avoid the dangers that Hemispherical Discognizant Disorder can cause.

If you are a foreigner in Central America, some people in the home country think that you spend Christmas in sweltering heat and humidity.

“Oh, yeah,” they say. “Down there, the seasons are reversed and all that.”
The charitable response, the one I usually give, is to commend them for what they recall of fifth-grade geography. The sarcastic response might be to ask if the Equator has moved.

True, that the seasons are reversed—as my Australian and South African readers know. Reversed in the sense that when Santa flies to the Southern Hemisphere, he has to don Bermuda shorts and a T-shirt. When it is snowy in Buffalo, it is steamy in Buenos Aires.

But Central America is in fact north of the Equator. Not only that, but five countries of South America—Panama, Venezuela, Guyana, Suriname and Trinidad—are entirely in the Northern Hemisphere. Colombia is now the second most populous country in South America, yet 99% of Colombians live north of the Equator. And Ecuador, the quintessentially South American country, is split by the Equator and even named after it.

Learn the names of any rivers and lakes on the map. You might save yourself the heartbreak of confusing Lake Atitlán with Lake Amatitlán and boarding the wrong bus.

When I tactfully point out such things to the people confused over the equatorial division, I often get blank stares. But it is not my fault that, as the waters receded, South America failed to move far enough south to prevent the misunderstanding. I call this condition “Hemispherical Discognizant Disorder,” or HDD (not to be confused with ADD, which doesn’t preclude hemispherical knowledge, but it does preclude finding a map when you need one to shed light on the subject).

My own grandmother was stricken with HDD after I moved to Guatemala in 1988. She sighed with relief to discover that Guatemala was not only in her hemisphere, but closer to Las Vegas (where she lived) than, say, Leisure World in Fort Lauderdale. Fortunately, the condition can be “managed” (to use the parlance of psychiatry) without drugs. Maps are often enough.

People from my own country do not have the monopoly on HDD that you might suspect. I have friends from other countries who, speaking on condition of their country’s anonymity, have told me candidly that HDD and other forms of geographic misconception are also present where they hail from.

To a degree, but no further, we can blame schools. Once, while I was a primary teacher in 1985, my principal (whom I will call F.) gave a sample reading lesson to the school’s neophyte teachers during an after-school “staff-development” (similar to “detention” for kids, but less fun). The lesson was from a basal reader story and was called “The Bremen Traveling Musicians.” It was about a group of talking animals that traveled in Germany, giving concerts (dumb concept, I know).

Anyway, F. kept saying “Berman” instead of Bremen, which drew snickers (but no spitballs) from some of the teachers attending the sample lesson in, uh, reading. The matter came up during lunch the next day in the teachers’ lounge. I recall the mentor teacher remarking with deadpan seriousness that F. “would not be able to locate Germany on an unlabelled map of Europe, much less correctly pronounce the name of a city within Germany.”

Now if some of our educational stewards have this problem, is it any wonder that some of our relatives back home think that Guatemala is the second biggest city in Mexico, and that Guadalajara is a brand of tequila or a type of hallucinogenic mushroom?

Maybe not. But, again, we can only blame the schools to a degree. Those of us who live and/or travel in Central America owe it to our hosts to know something about their country. Insurance sellers try to find out all they can about a prospect or “lead” before making the sales call. Diplomats are briefed on the authorities they will be dealing with. And so on. More often than we might expect, knowledge of the host country can avail us much.

If you can name the capital of the province where the person next to you on the bus comes from, or the name of someone important who came from there, you win points and open doors. This is especially true if your potential friend comes from a place that outsiders rarely visit, and if you have not been there yourself.

Guatemala is divided into only 22 departments; Honduras, 18; and El Salvador, 14. Belize is made up of just six districts. Fully half of these provinces have a capital, or cabecera, with the same name, making memorization easier still. If someone says he or she is from Jalapa, for example, you look knowledgeable if you then ask, “the cabecera or the department?”

After replying, your friend may ask, with a smile both hopeful and curious, “Have you been to Jalapa?”

“No,” you answer. “But I’ve seen it on maps, and wondered what it must be like.”
Don’t be surprised if you then get an invitation to stay with your friend if you’re ever out that way. And if you go, you might get a guided tour and discover some cool thing never mentioned in the guidebooks.

Simple scholastic maps can be bought in any librería for a few centavos. They outline the country’s provinces and pinpoint the cabeceras with dots. Start labeling, and carry the map folded in your wallet or purse until you know them all. As an icebreaker, ask someone to show you the location of the country’s tallest mountain, Volcán Tajumulco, then mark its location.

Also, learn the names of any rivers and lakes on the map, and label them. You might save yourself the heartbreak of confusing Lake Atitlán with Lake Amatitlán and boarding the wrong bus. And finally, you won’t look like a foreigner with HDD.

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